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Inside story

review - A History of Interior Design By John Pile. Laurence King, 2004. 464 pp. £40

This beautifully produced and illustrated book, weighing in at under £8 per pound in weight, is a marvellous introduction to architectural history for those with no other already to hand.

As all the great buildings are here, we might ask: what then is interior design?

Having gone round that before (AJ 11.6.98, p66), I accept that Pile's avoidance of the question is irrelevant; it is a book of examples, not of issues. His main concern was not with definitions - it was how to choose his examples.

This 'basic survey of 6,000 years of personal and public space' opens with a French cave painting, and then pictures two and three are described: 'Huge stones were carefully placed - with a strong aesthetic impact whether they were originally open to the sky (as now) or roofed with materials that have since disappeared'; and 'The interior was simply the inside of its structure without added treatment or furniture'.

These captions (to Stonehenge and 'the native American tepee' respectively) suggest that no time will be wasted on theories, whether of cultural symbolic meaning with the former or of architectural origins with the latter. Gottfried Semper, interior design's first theorist, who famously made such links, is nowhere mentioned. The first two-thirds of the timespan shoots by before we can draw breath, while the last third of the book covers barely 100 years.

Interior design merits but three index entries: to Percier and Fontaine in Napoleonic France, to Elsie de Wolfe and the early 20thcentury decorators in the States, and finally to recent US 'star' designers (his quote marks), none of whom I'd heard of, and their lush eclectic interiors.

As a conventional general history it defines Norman, Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular in English Gothic; Plasteresco, Desornamentado and Churrigueresco in Spanish Renaissance. Construction of pendentives and of Gothic vaults is illustrated, as is the golden mean and (quite differently, 77 pages later) the golden section.

There is the usual chronological problem with such surveys - we meet the beautiful late-17th-century pavilion Chihil Sutun in Isfahan before the ancient Indian temples or even Gothic Europe, while Louis Kahn's Dhaka precedes its 600-year-older English equivalent, Westminster Hall.

While the text is a conventional tale, occasional personal comments stand out oddly. An English country house is described as 'surprising in that access to each room is only possible by passing through an adjoining room'. No space here, then, for the important tale of the 'modern' shift from enfilade to 'circulation'. (Nor is the illustrated enfilade at the Eames house noted. ) In fact, actual spaces are not discussed - surfaces are all; Adolf Loos, the greatest spatial innovator of the domestic interior, is only discussed as a critic of superficial ornament.

At the De La Warr Pavilion, we learn that 'the architect drew inspiration from the Schocken store in Stuttgart'; from himself, then, as Pile must mean Mendelsohn's Schocken building in Chemnitz. His only comment on the Smithsons' Economist building is it 'displays the austerity of Brutalism'. Hmm.

Boxes with 'insights' add dobs of culture to the basic fare, seasoning every chapter or so, while illustrations include furniture and even fabrics, from Kente cloth to Islamic prayer mats. All this, plus the book's many plans, makes it more attractive than most brightly coloured general histories.

There are no real problems of issues or influences, few ideas to harm this lovely encyclopaedia of the world's great interiors.

How wonderful to see all the greatest buildings once more, but this time almost always only from the inside: not least 20thcentury classics like Johnson's Glass House, Wright's Fallingwater or Neutra's Lovell House (the cover photo); what a breath of freshness! A fine present for a new student of architecture.

John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture

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